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Sierra Leone Elections Begin Without Incident - 2004-05-22

Voters in Sierra Leone are electing local leaders for the first time in 32 years. The polling began without incident.

President Ahmad Tejan Kabbah, who was one of the first to vote at a polling station near his official residence, said he was pleased there were no incidents in the early hours of balloting.

"From my point of view, this is a very, very important step in the consolidation of peace, the hard won peace in Sierra Leone," he said. "It's my dream come true that we, as Sierra Leoneans, should put behind us the association of the exercise of democratic rights by way of voting with violence. This is the second major election that we've had since 2002, and the nomination days on both occasions passed off peacefully, and this one has, so far, gone peacefully, and I'm very pleased about it."

President Kabbah was re-elected in 2002, and the ruling Sierra Leone Peoples Party won the majority in parliamentary elections that were held the same day.

The SLPP is expected to do well in the local elections for 19 district and town councils, especially in its southeastern stronghold. But independent candidates and the main opposition All Peoples Congress are hoping to mount a strong challenge.

Alpha Amara says he hopes the newly-established local councils, which have been given extensive power over local issues, will help improve standards of living.

"We are praying for that, not me alone, but the entire country," said Alpha Amara. "We are praying for that, that this local government election will make things simple [better]. Things are very hard for now, but maybe, after the election, the local government election, power to the people, will help the process, the development process to proceed."

The local councils will participate in developing water sanitation projects, road construction and education.

Early voter turnout was low, and some of those who showed up were confused, because, unlike for the previous elections, there were no pictures of candidates on ballot papers.

The head of the National Election Commission for the Freetown area, Freddie Bright, admits preparation for these elections was rushed.

"It's not easy," he said. "We came as a commission very late. We were appointed in January, and, since then, we have been having a lot of problems. But we have been surviving, and, up to now, we have actually been told that we have been doing very well. So, I think, everything is on course, and we are very grateful for the cooperation we have been getting from so many quarters to make the political process a success."

The U.N. peacekeeping mission helped with logistics, while the European Union paid about one-third of the election cost. A team of 1,000 non-governmental workers spread out across Sierra Leone as observers at polling stations.

The Commonwealth of mainly former British colonies also sent a team of observers.

Several observers said, despite some logistical problems and a lack of voter education, the balloting seemed to be free and fair, and there were no signs of intimidation or violence.